Toronto

Toronto education workers call for expansion of asymptomatic COVID-19 testing pilot

Toronto education workers are calling for the expansion of an asymptomatic COVID-19 testing program that revealed outbreaks in local schools, as well as a delayed return to in-class learning in the new year.

Voluntary testing program began last month for asymptomatic students, staff at select schools

A voluntary four-week testing program began late last month for asymptomatic students, faculty and staff at select schools in Toronto, Peel and York regions, and Ottawa. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Toronto education workers are calling for the expansion of an asymptomatic COVID-19 testing program that revealed outbreaks in local schools, as well as a delayed return to in-class learning in the new year.

In an open letter to provincial ministers of health and education, as well as Toronto public health officials, a group of education union representatives said the program should be deployed to all schools in the city.

"Teachers, education workers and families deserve to have a fact-based understanding of how healthy schools really are," read the letter sent Wednesday by union representatives for Toronto teachers and education workers.

The voluntary four-week testing program began late last month for asymptomatic students, faculty and staff at select schools in Toronto, Peel and York regions, and Ottawa.

An outbreak involving more than 20 cases was discovered at Thorncliffe Park Public School in Toronto, the first school where the program was deployed.

Education Minister Stephen Lecce has said the findings at Thorncliffe Park were a sign the program is doing what it's supposed to do.

Lecce also said the province will bolster its COVID-19 safety programming when all children return to school after the winter break. It will ensure students receive a refresher on pandemic safety measures after the pause in class, he said.

Education Minister Stephen Lecce has said the findings at Thorncliffe Park were a sign the program is doing what it's supposed to do. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

A spokeswoman for Lecce said Thursday that statistics indicate four out of five schools in the province do not have a case of COVID-19.

"Our government believes it is so important for our students to continue to go to school," Caitlin Clark said. "The best medical experts have made clear that cases are overwhelmingly not being transmitted within our schools — the risk remains from our community."

Last week, Lecce said the province would analyze results from the testing pilot before deciding on its future.

Wednesday's letter said regular asymptomatic testing will assess the prevalence of the virus in schools.

It also calls for schools to move to online learning for at least two weeks after the holidays to limit the spread of COVID-19. The writers argue that this break would offer time to set up an expanded testing program.

The government previously considered a prolonged winter break or starting the new year with a stretch of online learning but decided against that last month. It said the province's COVID-19 protocols for schools were enough to keep kids safe.

The groups writing the letter argued Premier Doug Ford's government has not provided adequate funding to reduce class sizes in elementary schools or upgrade air systems.

Ontario 'failing' students, parents, teachers, OSSTF says

Similar concerns were echoed Wednesday in an open letter from the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation, which said Ontario's COVID-19 education plans are "failing students, parents, educators, and communities."

"The education system in Ontario is teetering under the weight of COVID-19, despite the outstanding efforts of education workers and teachers," OSSTF President Harvey Bischof said in the letter that called for more funding for schools.

Bischof said the union is not calling for schools to close, but wants the government to change course on its current plan.

The province reported 139 new COVID-19 cases related to schools on Thursday, including at least 111 among students.

Those bring the number of schools with a reported case to 878 out of Ontario's 4,828 publicly funded schools.

now